How the romanticized myth of imperialism fuels the ambitions and dreams of despotic or hopeful men may be read as one indictment of the novel. The symbolism of Stein’s butterflies foretells men’s desire to grasp hold of every minute microcosm that constitutes the universe – to label, to showcase, to proclaim something as one’s own; as if the dream is the singular obsession which gives meaning to a person’s life. The ambition /quest to possess on colonist terms is subtly hinted at when Conrad suggests that ‘Stein never failed to annex on his own account every butterfly or beetle he could lay his hands on’.
Conrad attacks the romanticized idea of the dream as a distant ideal which can never be attained, as Stein laments ‘And do you know how many opportunities I let escape; how many dreams I had lost that had come in my way?’ By the end, it is telling how Stein is himself world-wearied, and “says often that he is ‘preparing to leave all this… ‘while he waves his hand sadly at his butterflies”.
The chief overreacher in the novel, Lord Jim, is also self-conscious of the one failure that haunts him like a dodging shadow to his life, in spite of his successful venture in Patusan. He is constantly aware that his existence is uncared for and unwanted by the larger world that has casted him away, in Marlowe’s words, as ‘not good enough’. Jim’s romantic quest to be worshipped as a hero and as a successful adventurer inevitably rings hollow in his failure to acknowledge the reality of human errors and imperfections.